Recreational-vehicle dealers had cause to smile at this weekend's annual Detroit Camper and RV Show. The four-day event was packed morning to night, every day.
And the families who came to see everything from small pop-up camp vehicles to 40-foot luxury coaches with bathrooms, refrigerators and built-in barbecues were in a buying mood.
"Things have been great," Chad Neff, general manager of American RV in Grand Rapids, Mich., said. "The traffic has been good and people are buying."
American RV sells a full range of recreational vehicles from small economic campers that get 23 mpg on a diesel engine to the super powered fifth-wheel Montana, which has an interior floor plan that seems almost as large as a studio apartment. Neff, like many other RV dealers at the show, attributed increased industry sales to the improvement in the availability of credit.
"I think there's a lot of pent-up demand," he said. "People right now, they're willing to get out, and the banks are lending more money, and those things are helping us out."
The increased interest is a dramatic change from last year's show, which occurred amid the backdrop of a weakened U.S. economy and uncertainty about the future. RV enthusiasts weren't buying because of job insecurity and the prospects of losing their homes, leaving little appetite for mobile ones. Several RV manufacturers filed for bankruptcy early last year and even industry giant Winnebago had a rough go at it.
The RV industry has long been thought of as a good indicator of the overall economy's performance because RV's are a major discretionary purchase that often require financing. After a sales slump, which coincided with the worsening economy, and an overall lack of enthusiasm at RV shows last year, 2010 has started with a boom for the industry.
Attendance at this year's Novi, Mich., show was up about 15 percent from last year, according to show director Bill Sheffer, who is with the Michigan Association of Recreation Vehicles and Campgrounds.
"We're encouraged by what we see," Sheffer said this weekend. "I'm not an economist but I sure hope this is a harbinger of good things to come."
Attendance was also strong at two other important RV shows last month. The annual Colorado RV Adventure Travel Show was up 26 percent from last year and the Florida RV Super Show surpassed 50,000 for the first time in the history of the show, according to organizers.
The Florida show is one of the most important indicators of retail demand for the industry, analysts and insiders say.
"A year ago this time, financing was terrible," said John Monterusso, a Michigan motor homes dealer. "People's existing RVs took a beating in value so a lot of people were upside down in what they already owned. But things are on the upswing. Sales are better."
About 1 in 12 U.S. vehicle-owning households, or about 8.2 million, also owns an RV, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. The industry employs more than a quarter-million Americans.
RV lovers and the culture associated with owning the vehicles runs deep across the country. Retirees love the time outdoors, on the road in their vehicles. And people with small children enjoy the family time.